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Furor after top Bollywood star attends demo

NEW DELHI: In this photo taken on Tuesday, Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone (center) visits students protesting at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). – AFP

NEW DELHI: One of Bollywood’s top stars sparked a social media storm yesterday, attracting admiration and vitriol after showing solidarity with students who were attacked at a Indian university this week. Indian film stars have traditionally shied away from politics, fearing their films could be boycotted or their safety threatened. The industry also relies heavily on government support. But Deepika Padukone, 34, the country’s top-earning female celebrity according to Forbes India, broke the mold when she attended a demonstration in New Delhi on Tuesday evening.

The protest came two days after masked attackers went on a rampage inside the campus of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), leaving 34 students and faculty members injured. Police reportedly stood by and did nothing, while videos purportedly from the scene showed masked men swinging batons as students screamed in terror. No-one has been arrested in connection with the violence.

The incident has been blamed on the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student body linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The group denied involvement. Padukone’s appearance led to calls – including from BJP spokesman Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga – for her upcoming film “Chhapaak” to be boycotted, while others accused her of a publicity stunt ahead of its release tomorrow. The film is based on the true story of a woman who survived an acid attack and rebuilt her life.

“It is said Bollywood doesn’t take a stand,” Advaita Kala, a screenwriter and commentator, said on Twitter. “@deepikapadukone has decided to take a stand with the Leftist students at JNU. She shd be informed that ABVP students have also been injured. Rather than a partisan approach, wish she’d used her celebrity to build a bridge between students,” Kala added.

But others jumped to her defense, calling for people to go and see her movie in solidarity, leading to a battle of hashtags including “#ISupportDeepika” and “#boycottChapaak”. “The female of the species is, and was, and will always be the strongest of the two #DeepikaPadukone,” tweeted Anurag Kashyap, a leading Bollywood director. “Let’s all those who stand against the violence go to @bookmyshow and show them. Make our silent statement which will be the loudest,” Kashyap added.

“We are proud to see so many voices from the film industry take the lead. More power to you @deepikapadukone. Bravo!! #ISupportDeepika,” the youth wing of the main opposition Congress party tweeted. The protests sweeping India in the last weeks have posed a dilemma for Bollywood, which has some big-name Muslim actors but is sensitive to the sentiments of the country’s Hindu majority. “The reason why a whole lot of stars back away from making statements is because they are afraid of the consequences it will have on their films,” said brand consultant and columnist Santosh Desai. “To do this so close to a film is certainly risky.”

The violence at JNU is the latest in a series of clashes that have killed at least two dozen people amid protests over a controversial new citizenship law Modi’s government passed in December. It speeds up citizenship claims from persecuted non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, stoking fears that Modi wants to marginalize India’s Islamic minority, which he denies.

Meanwhile, Indian police fired live rounds yesterday to break up a protest by strikers taking part in nationwide action against government economic policies, officials said. The strike, called by unions which claim 250 million members, disrupted public transport, public-owned banks and some auto-industry factories across several states.

West Bengal was the worst hit, with police firing live rounds in the air to break up protesters who set fire to police vehicles and threw rocks at security forces in Malda district, north of the capital Kolkata, a senior police officer told AFP. They also fired tear gas and baton-charged other protests in the eastern state, where many roads and railway lines were blocked. Police said more than 150 arrests were made. Ten unions called the one-day strike to oppose what they called the “anti-worker and anti-people policies” of Modi. They were demanding increased minimum wages and pensions, and a halt to the privatization of state firms and natural resources.

Farmers and students joined some of the protests called by the unions – who said “millions” joined the strike – piling pressure on an administration already confronting nationwide opposition to the nationality law. The government had warned of “consequences” for anyone who stopped work, but could not head off the disruptions. Apart from West Bengal, the eastern states of Bihar and Odisha, Maharashtra in the west, Haryana in the north and Kerala and Karnataka in the south were worst hit by the action. Some workers at state oil and coal firms, as well as motorbike makers Honda and Bajaj Auto, also joined the strike. – Agencies

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